Olympics has struggled with attendance. But if it makes billions, does filling seats really matter?

Plenty of seats remain empty at Saturday’s U.S.-Russia men’s hockey game at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

It was the kind of roar that has been in short supply at these 2018 Winter Olympics.

Twelve thousand fans — many of them Korean — packed into Gangneung Ice Arena, cheering as their countrywoman, Choi Min-jeong, won her heat in short-track speedskating.

“We expect a gold medal tonight,” said Jaewoo Shim, who showed up at the arena on a weekend night. “People in Korea are very interested in watching this game.”


With large, boisterous crowds, short track has been an exception at a Games that has often seen row after row of empty seats, even at some of the marquee events.

“I think it’s a little bit strange, to be honest, that we’re having the Olympics and there’s that few people in the stands,” Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway said after winning the men’s downhill. “And it’s a bit sad.”

Organizers say they have sold more than 90% of available seats; they have blamed transportation snafus and frigid weather, among other things, for scaring away some ticket-holders, with a spokeswoman saying: “We can’t control the people who don’t show up.”

But as Pyeongchang struggles with lackluster attendance — at times using volunteers to fill space — sports business experts ask an important question:

For an Olympic movement that generates billions of dollars from television and corporate sponsorships, does attendance really matter?

“It would be nice to have all these cowbells clanging as skiers go down the hill,” said Scott Minto, director of the sports business management program at San Diego State. “But from a business sense, these Games could be on the moon and people would still tune in.”

This issue isn’t new to host cities.

Ticket sales lagged in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. There were partially empty venues at the 2014 Sochi Games and at Turin, Italy, in 2006.

Six weeks before the opening ceremony in South Korea, organizers acknowledged that nearly 40% of their 1 million tickets had yet to be purchased.

Pyeongchang was a tough sell if only because the remote county is about 90 miles east of Seoul. When the Games began, this distance was exacerbated by traffic jams and “incidents with the bus operation,” organizers said.

It didn’t help that some events were scheduled early in the day to accommodate American television.

Because of the 14-hour time difference, a ski race or snowboard contest that finished around noon could be shown in prime time on the East Coast. That meant spectators coming from outside the region had to leave home hours in advance.

“The folks who fork over the most money to the IOC are going to be the ones who dictate the times,” Minto said of broadcasters. “It’s not always going to be in the best interest of the locals.”

There was another challenge for spectators: Temperatures through the first week often dipped well below freezing.

Strong northerly winds forced the men’s downhill to be postponed from the opening weekend to mid-week, when people were back at work. At the biathlon venue, only the hardiest fans could bear to watch night races.

“If you look in the stadium, there are not so many people,” said Laura Dahlmeier of Germany after she won a women’s pursuit. “For us, it’s a good feeling to have fans.”

Not until the eighth day of competition did ticket sales finally reach 1 million, a milestone because local organizers need the revenue to cover their billions in costs. If anyone doubted the figures, spokesman Sung Baik-you said: “We’re not saying that we’ve sold tickets that we haven’t really sold.”

The organizing committee offered yet another reason for lagging attendance, saying corporations had purchased blocks of seats that were going unused. Athletes such as Svindal wondered if the Winter Games had a bigger problem on its hands.

“If we had this race in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, it would be packed,” he said of the men’s downhill. “It would be 50,000 people. Probably in the U.S., too.”

But Europeans cities have shied away from bidding for the Games, concerned about the cost. At the same time, the IOC has sought to strengthen its brand in different parts of the world.

The idea of spreading the Olympics this way makes sense, even if it requires wooing cultures that have no historical affinity to cross-country or bobsled, said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

“What’s the alternative; let’s limit the Games to just the 100-meter dash and just do it in London?” he asked. “You don’t have a movement if you’re doing that.”

Besides, unlike the host city organizers, the IOC doesn’t really need ticket revenue, not with NBC paying $7.65 billion to extend its broadcast rights through 2032 and a corporate sponsorship portfolio that generates an estimated hundreds of millions more.

But empty stands make for bad optics and, even as the weather in Pyeongchang warmed, things did not get much better at events such as the women’s slalom or the super-giant slalom when Lindsey Vonn raced. A women’s hockey game between the top teams, the U.S. and Canada, drew an announced crowd of 3,885 in the 6,000-seat Kwandong Hockey Centre.

By then, in a move supported by Olympic leaders, organizers had taken to filling empty seats with volunteers.

“It’s good for everybody because you have a venue that is full and you are able to thank people,” IOC executive Christophe Dubi said. “All in all, yes, we are satisfied.”

No such measures have been needed for racing at the Gangneung arena.

After short track was added to the Winter Olympics program in 1992, the South Korean government identified it as a good match for Korean athletes and began pouring resources into development.

Heading into the Pyeongchang Games, the country had won 42 medals — 21 of them gold — in the sport, far more than any other nation.

“Every skater from Korea is so good,” Shim said. “That’s why people are very interested.”

Last Saturday night, with the stands filled, racers said they were inspired by the boisterous crowd.

Fans got what they wanted, too. As the evening wore on, Seo Yira of South Korea won bronze in the men’s 1,000 meters. And in the women’s 1,500, Choi took the gold.

Times staff writers Helene Elliott, Nathan Fenno and Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.

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